Know Your Feedback Moat

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A feedback moat describes performance areas or parts of our skill set that we’ve surrounded with some defenses. Just as a moat serves as a method of defense—a way to protect the castle—we can build moats around performance areas we feel the need to defend.

Why this is important

As we’ve discussed, building self-awareness is vital for developing our overall feedback literacy, a foundational component of developing as a professional.

Intellectually, it’s easy to say that we are open to receiving feedback on anything. We may have even said it enough (including to ourselves) that we’ve come to believe it.

However, through journaling and other reflective practices, many discover they have built some defenses. Some discover that they’ve built two moats: one around negative feedback in general and another around a particularly sensitive performance area.

An experienced software engineer may have built a moat around their understanding of version control systems like Git. Or a marketing leader may have built a moat around their sense of design.

These moats can mean:

  1. You no longer seek feedback on these topics
  2. You receive feedback on these topics poorly

Combined, these moats can lead to strengths becoming outdated or weaknesses remaining weaknesses. As we’ve covered, individual feedback literacy can contribute to the overall feedback culture, and that is certainly the case here.

Draining the moat

Draining the moat takes work, but if we approach it from multiple angles we can make progress that catapults our professional development.

Keep in mind that our feedback moats are linked to our overall feedback orientation, our receptivity to feedback. Our moats may also be tied to areas where we are particularly sensitive or vulnerable. This is why activities like journaling can develop self-awareness. Working with a licensed therapist can also help us get to the root of and break through such barriers.

For leaders: realize your feedback orientation can be improved and take steps to build the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills necessary to make it happen. We cover those elements in the following video:

As we covered in this piece on Performative Feedback, it’s also vital to model authentic leadership: the ability to drop your role-playing and stand bravely and vulnerably in front of your direct reports.

For people managers: you may want to help your direct reports in this regard. Here’s what to keep in mind.

As Leila Ugincius wrote about, research from Virginia Commonwealth University suggests that responding poorly to negative feedback may not necessarily mean your colleagues don’t improve based on that feedback. So keep that in mind: a poor response doesn’t necessarily mean growth won’t happen.

Still, the moat can make feedback communication far more difficult than it needs to be. To address this, I recommend following the three steps of building team feedback literacy:

  1. Pull your team together to discuss feedback, not to give and receive it, but to discuss what it is.
  2. Introducing the concept of feedback literacy
  3. Then, work with each teammate as an individual so you can co-create a feedback literacy development plan based on the foundation you’ve established.


Why can feedback be challenging?